Design Challenges in Enigma Code Breaking Game

Xuejun Wang
11 min readFeb 22, 2018

This is a design log for my ETC project. It’s about designing a puzzle-solving activity within a bigger role play game. And we have met several interesting design challenges. I want to share what problems we met, how we solved some of them, and what we have learned so far.

I will start with what the bigger role play game is. Our clients are designing a tabletop role play game talking about the women worked in the Bletchley Park during WWII. It’s an experience for 4 to 6 players who are interested in history and tabletop role play games. And the whole game will last for about 4–5 hours long.

The game contrasts these women’s experiences in wartime with the very different trajectories their lives took after the war. These women have used their intellect to help break the German coding machine, Enigma, and save countless people’s lives during wartime. But most of these women were not able to do this kind of work anymore after the war. They needed to return to a far more confining role. And they needed to lie to their friends and families about what they did in the wartime because they were not allowed to talk about that. The roles of these women were not publicly known until 1974 and were not honored until 2009. The game consists of these three time periods: during wartime, post-war time, and post-revelation time. It explores these turning points in their lives. And our clients want the players to feel sad about these women when they finish playing the game.

Our team is designing a collaborative code breaking activity for the role play game. This activity will only happen in WWII part. This activity should be 10 to 15 minutes and will be played three to five times during the whole game. The activity should let players feel smart and heroic after finishing it. And players should feel it so good that when they are not able to do this they feel really sad (in post-war period).

This will be a super long article if I write down everything we have done and how they work so far, and many of them are not actually that important. So here I will directly discuss those design challenges we have.

Parallel Design

As mentioned, we are designing an activity for a whole role play experience. A big problem for us here is that the roleplaying game hasn’t been designed yet. Our clients will start designing for the role play game in the semester. We are designing an activity for a role play game before designing the whole role play game. So we only generally know the structure of the role-playing experience, but we don’t know any details like characters or stories about that yet. It does give us more freedom on characters, roles, and stories, i.e., we could design them ourselves. But meanwhile, we need to make a lot of assumptions on the whole experience, such as how will our activity be played, when will that be played, and how will the small stories connect to each other and form a big experience. I think our team feel confused rather than feel free for a long time. There was a time when three of our team members discussed for over two hours and had no conclusion on what the clients think of the structure of puzzles and narrative. BUT HOW CAN WE KNOW THAT? And of course, we don’t want to wait for and count on our clients’ design work. Later on, because of this, our team positions our work a little bit differently, we want to create an experience that could both stand alone as our project, and also constitutes a portion of the bigger game. Moreover, we are now not only designing an activity but also finding the best way to perform this activity in the whole role play experience. If we meet problems, we now not only ask our clients what is their opinion, but also try to figure that out ourselves, and propose our answer to the problem. By this way, we now own this project much greater than before.

Puzzle Design

Puzzle design is right now the hardest part of this project. Our previous general puzzle research work led us to some design pillars about the puzzles we want. We have made some puzzles and done several playtests on our puzzles. Here is what we got so far.

Smart & Heroic
Our first design pillar is to make players feel smart and heroic. Making players feel heroic relies more on narrative, but making them smart is based on puzzle design. But it’s really hard to make puzzles that make people feel smart. And ideally, our activity should let players feel smart the first time they play it, which is even harder. A lot of puzzle games, like Portal, The Witness, make players feel smart because players are smart. Players need to be really smart at the hard puzzles to solve them, and then feel smart. While in our activity, players start playing the game as a historical role play game, not a puzzle game, we can not give them hard puzzles. And in video games, designers have the control to reveal the keys to players step by step, leading them from feeling confused to feeling smart gradually. “I Expect You to Die” has this as one of their design pillars.

Shawn Patton talked about it in VRDC 2016

But in our activity, we want them to immediately feel that they are those talented women, we want them to feel smart the first time they play it. It’s really hard for us to design a brilliant puzzle like this. And during escape room research, I found that I felt smart and felt quite good when I was doing a Jigsaw puzzle, finding the connection between those pieces and successfully putting them back together make me feel smart. So maybe, what we want is just players to “feel” smart. The feeling is the most important thing rather than the puzzle. It could be a simple puzzle but gives players good feelings. And this feeling can come from different ways, like great visual feedback, or feeling of accomplishment like sudoku or crossword puzzles. In the puzzle we playtested, there is a time when everyone’s work is done, and players will see some lines that seem like numbers and words. That is an “Aha” moment for our players. And many players said that was the moment when they felt most smart.

Diegetic Puzzles
Because we are designing a puzzle-solving activity inside a role-playing game, we don’t want the code-breaking activity to break the immersion. It will be terrible if players are role-playing seriously in the scene, and suddenly they are given some childish Jigsaw puzzles with Pikachu to solve. We want the players to feel like they are those women code breakers working there and at that time. What we give to our players should make sense, should look like an encoded message that they need to work on. We will also make some physical props like telephone and radio of the 1940s to give players the sense of time.

This is right now the part we need to improve on and it’s difficult. In our playtesting, many players said that they could not feel they were doing codebreaking. Especially people who know what cryptographers do, will feel extremely out of the role. We want to simulate what real code breakers are doing, but it should not be as hard as what real code breakers are doing. And there are some problems for us to do a code-breaking simulation. The first is, people generally regard code breaking as certain kind of symbol substituting. It will be a little bit hard for us to make it highly cooperative. The second is, real-world code breaking usually requires pre-owned, outside knowledge. By outside I mean the information outside the puzzle itself. Here is an example puzzle from The GCHQ Puzzle Book (GCHQ is the organization these codebreakers working for.)

If 1000110 is MINGLE and 1000110001100 is APE, what string of digits is POLITE?

This is a starter puzzle given by GCHQ people, a real thing from real code breakers. So I could tell you that to solve this puzzle, you need to know how Roman numerals work. If you don’t know this pre-owned, outside knowledge you can never solve this puzzle. But we don’t want to add too many layers to our puzzles. Even if we provide players the pre-owned knowledge, it will still take players time to understand.

Collaborative Code Breaking With Roles
We want players to keep talking and interacting with each other while they are doing this code-breaking puzzle. We don’t want their concentration suddenly shifting from talking and listening to each other to thinking by themselves and writing on pieces of paper. It’s relatively simpler to design a puzzle that needs players to cooperate on without roles. Our added complexity is players need to have and feel certain roles like mathematicians and linguists in the puzzle-solving activity.

Escape rooms are perfect places where players are doing different things and also collaborating together. Someone is finding clues everywhere, someone is working on a Jigsaw puzzle, and someone is trying to understand the clues. But their goals are the same, they want to find all clues, solves all puzzles and get out of the room. The difference between our activity and escape room is that our players have certain roles in the role play game. We want to reinforce their roles through the puzzle solving activity. A linguist is supposed to work on something about languages and letters. They can not randomly pick a role and some work like choose to do something in the escape room.

Narrative Design

The narrative design was not part of our responsibility originally, but as we were prototyping for puzzles, we found it really hard to design those puzzles without context. We could easily design tons of puzzles, but the importance is to have these puzzles make sense in the role-play scenario. Without a narrative context, it’s hard for us to imagine how will the puzzles be handed to the players, what the input and output of the puzzles will be. So we turned to find a story that fits into the whole experience and try to define a narrative structure model for us to work on.

We researched on several historical events in the WWII that were related to code breaking. And we picked a Coventry bombing story where codebreakers in the Bletchley Park successfully broke the code, knew that there would be a bombing happening. But Churchill didn’t take any defensive measures, lest the Germans suspect that their cipher had been broken. We didn’t know if the Churchill part is true. But the event is great for our experience. First, it explains why breaking Enigma important and how the code breakers’ work can make a larger impact on the war. Second, it has the “Wow” moments where players break the code and know the German attack in advance. Third, it also has a twist where they successfully break the code but could not save people’s lives which can help build a great emotional arc. And last, it is also a metaphor that these women had done something extremely important to the world, but cannot reveal this to their families and friends.

We got two main feedback from our instructors. One is because we are doing a real historical event, what if our players already know the results. The other one is, the aim of the activity is to let players feel smart and heroic, but our narrative ends in tragedy, how will we achieve smart and heroic through a tragedy story. Our point of view is, the game supposed to be a history lesson. So it needs to be a real history, but we could make fictional characters. And about the tragedy, it is an element in the whole experience part. Our puzzle solving activity will still let players feel smart and heroic. But the whole experience gives players much more complicated feelings and emotions as those women. Of course, the tragedy could be one of them. So we keep the narrative structure and iterate on it.

How we divide the design work into three parts

At the first month of the project, our designers didn’t have specific roles and work that we were responsible for. All of us just worked on same things, either research and defining roles, or prototypes and playtesting puzzles. It was more like we were assigned work rather than we were actively designed this activity. And I thought that was why our designers felt lost about what they were doing and what they should do every day when they stepped into the project room. After the first month, we divided our design work into puzzle design, narrative design, and high-level whole experience design. Each designer is responsible for one part. Till now, this division works pretty well in several ways.

Firstly, the specific role of puzzle designer or narrative designer gives the personal responsibility and sense of owning that part of the project. In our project, being responsible for something means this person needs to think of questions about this and propose answers to the team. For example, puzzle designer ask the question that will players work together on a same big puzzle all the time? Or will they first solve small puzzles themselves and the answer of small puzzles are clues to the bigger puzzle that players are going to solve collaboratively together? And he will think, research, design, prototype on this question, try to find his answer, and propose what he finds to the team. And then, the team will discuss the question and make the decision together. Compared to having everyone work on the same thing, the division gives the designers sense of owning the part they are working on. And we started to plan everything ourselves, after finishing something we know immediately what we are going to do next. Also, we know the exact person we should turn to ask when we have certain questions.

The second thing is this division provides us with different perspectives on problems and discussion. It’s hard for a single person to think of everything in this activity. The division makes us focus on certain things and go deeper. Yesterday we were discussing the division of our scenes and activities. We knew what information could be the answers of code-breaking activities, we needed to figure out where should we have what, like should players get to know that there will be a bombing in Scene 1, and figure out the time in another scene. Or they know both the bombing and time in the scene to create an urgent atmosphere. And the three designers answered the question from different perspectives. The experience designer thought about how to arrange the scenes to create a better experience flow for the players. The puzzle designer thought about arranging the most important information in code-breaking activity. And the narrative designer brought out how historically the information was revealed to them. So from different roles, we got different information, different concerns from different perspectives, which helped us to think about the project more thoroughly.

Think Bigger

An important principle I use, when I have trouble making decisions is to think about the goal, aim and essential experience of the bigger project. This is part of the reason we kept the Coventry story even if it kind of goes against the goal of our puzzle-solving activity. Because it creates an interesting emotional arc for the big experience, and it fits really really well into our theme. And I think the ultimate goal of our design work, is to make the big experience better.


  1. Own the project
  2. Ask questions and propose answers
  3. Work with constraints
  4. Work for the essential experience